The 3 Biggest Branding and Marketing Mistakes Nonprofits Make

The 3 Biggest Branding and Marketing Mistakes Nonprofits Make

FrogDog research uncovered three big marketing and branding mistakes that cost nonprofits dearly.

In January 2012, the University of Texas School of Law’s 29th Annual Nonprofits Institute asked FrogDog CEO Leslie Farnsworth to speak on branding and marketing for nonprofit organizations. To prepare for her presentation, FrogDog conducted informal, anecdotal research to determine what organizations are doing in branding and marketing that is most damaging to their causes. Three very clear themes emerged strongly from this research—more strongly than we expected.

Interestingly, these missteps apply to for-profit corporations just as much as they do to nonprofits. (And if you want to know what we mean by branding, it’s a good idea to read our series of articles on the topic.)

Here, in order of predominance, are the three biggest branding and marketing mistakes organizations make:

1. Blurry Messaging

Many people aren’t sure what a given nonprofit actually does or how it helps. FrogDog showed prominent charity logos and asked people to associate the brandmark with the cause and solution, and few could do so. Blurry messaging is one of the biggest problems nonprofits face when it comes to branding and marketing.

Let’s talk about The Fund for Animals. It’s a wonderful organization that specializes in wildlife and habitat protection. Today, The Fund for Animals does a great job clarifying what it does.

But in the 1980s, animal welfare became a popular cause, and a number of groups dedicated to animal issues popped up. These new groups focused on pets, laboratory animals, food animals, entertainment animals, and so forth. At that time, The Fund for Animals did very little to distinguish its mission from the other groups’ missions, which became a big internal and external communications issue. Someone FrogDog talked to in our research said she remembered that, many times, the receptionist would lose the battle with a concerned member who would ask what Fund for Animals did that was different from all the others. When the receptionist couldn’t clearly explain it, the person would choose not to give.

Nonprofits struggle with clearly and crisply communicating what they do, they can’t figure out how to (or don’t realize that they should) make their message relevant to the right audiences, and, often, they aren’t able to clearly define and target their audiences in the first place. Blurry messaging is their biggest marketing and branding challenge, and it costs them dearly.

2. Brand Confusion

Two big reasons nonprofits deal with brand confusion: Their logos are matchy-matchy—and that’s when they even bother to use the same logo in the first place.

First, the matchy-matchy problem. Sometimes it’s innocent enough, and sometimes it’s intentional: Nonprofit brands often look nearly identical.

In innocent cases, it’s because a color or symbol signifies something related to the cause. For example, the color red signifies HIV/AIDS and heart health. So many cardiovascular and HIV/AIDS causes pick red, and cardiovascular causes play with heart icons while HIV/AIDS causes incorporate red ribbons.

Let’s look at these logos for breast cancer charities:

The problem here is that it becomes difficult for the average person to distinguish between the brands. In many cases, a donor may intend to give to one charity while accidentally giving to another. Or when asked by one of these organizations to give, he may believe he’s already given this year—when he hasn’t.

In less-innocent cases, logo similarity is completely intentional. At FrogDog, we were asked not too long ago to create a brand very similar to another organization’s brand, in hopes of siphoning off some of that charity’s intended funds and to seem “endorsed by” or “affiliated with” that very established organization. (Don’t worry: We passed on the project and the client.)

If another organization—even one that’s for profit—infringes on your brand or creates brand confusion, you must fight it. Yes, even if the infringing organization’s intentions are innocent. Organizations don’t do enough to protect their brands, and it hurts them badly.

Second, the brand-clarity issue. A charity uses numerous different logos and colors, and seems to use them with no rhyme or reason—and certainly no brand standards.

We’re going to call out Goodwill here only because the organization and its independent branches have done a wonderful job in recent years of clearing up the confusion. But look at the many logos Goodwill once had:

3. Stuck in Time

We won’t call out any specific organizations here, but you know them: They haven’t changed the way they present their brand or do their marketing in decades.

Maybe they think that what worked in the past will work today and in the future. (For more on that particular mistake, read our article on the five most common marketing mistakes.) Maybe they just aren’t thinking about it at all.

Time to reconsider. Organizations that haven’t updated their branding and marketing strategies stop reaching younger demographics, meaning that their donor bases will eventually age out. Also, because research time and time again proves that people make value judgments on things based on what they see in their branding and marketing (the old “judging a book by its cover” problem), potential and past donors may begin to ignore what seem like outdated causes just because the look and feel of the organizations are outdated. (For more on how marketplace evolution changes marketing, and how to know if you’re affected, read our article on the subject.)

These three mistakes translate to significant lost opportunities for organizations: lost volunteer hours, lost funds, lost interest from new people. Are you making these mistakes? What are they costing you?

Posted: Mar 13, 2012
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
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